Can We Handle the Truth?

I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on the Boston Massacre. I said I would speak, but only if I could also speak about other massacres in American history.

The Boston Massacre, which took place on March 5, 1770, when British troops killed five colonists, is a much-remembered–indeed, overremembered–event. Even the word massacre is a bit of an exaggeration; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says the word denotes ‘wholesale slaughter.’

Still, there is no denying the ugliness of a militia firing into a crowd, using as its rationale the traditional claim of trigger-happy police–that the crowd was ‘unruly’ (as it undoubtedly was). John Adams, who was a defense lawyer for the nine accused British soldiers and secured acquittals for seven of them, described the crowd as ‘a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattos, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs.’

Adams could hardly have expressed more clearly the fact that the race and class of the victims made their lives less precious. This was one of many instances in which the Founding Fathers registered their desire to keep revolutionary fervor under the control of the more prosperous classes.

Ten thousand Bostonians (out of a total population of 16,000) marched in the funeral procession for the massacre victims. And the British, hoping not to provoke more anger, pulled their troops out of Boston. Undoubtedly, the incident helped build sentiment for independence.

Still, I wanted to discuss other massacres because concentrating attention on the Boston Massacre would be a painless exercise in patriotic fervor. There is no surer way to obscure the deep divisions of race and class in American history than by uniting us in support of the American Revolution and all its symbols-like Paul Revere’s stark etching of the soldiers shooting into the crowd.

I suggested to the symposium audience that there were other massacres, forgotten or dimly remembered, that deserved to be recalled. These ignored episodes can tell us much about racial hysteria and class struggle, about shameful moments in our continental and overseas expansion, so that we can see ourselves more clearly and honestly.

Why, for instance, was there not a symposium on what we might call the Taino Massacre, in which Columbus and his fellow conquistadors annihilated the native population of Hispaniola, the island that is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic? Before the conquistadors arrived, there were several million people living on the island. By 1550, perhaps only 50,000 were left.

Why not organize a public forum on the Pequot Massacre of 1636, when our Puritan ancestors, in an expedition led by Captain John Mason, set fire to a village of Pequot Indians on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound? Here’s how William Bradford, an early settler, described the attack in his History of Plymouth Plantation:

Those that scaped the fire, were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400.

‘It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day,’ wrote the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, an expert on the destination of souls.

The massacres of American Indians by the armies of the United States-in Colorado in 1864, in Montana in 1870, in South Dakota in 1890, to cite just a few-were massacres in the most literal sense: that is, wholesale slaughter of hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. The number of those events cannot be counted, and should by that fact be a subject for intense scrutiny.

The results of such an investigation would be as sobering to young Americans as the story of the Boston Massacre is inspiring. And sobriety about our national sins might be instructive at a time when we need to consider what role we will play in the world during the coming century.

Atrocities against African Americans took place either by official acts or by white mobs with the collaboration of government officials. In 1917, an article called ‘The Massacre of East St. Louis’ appeared in the NAACP publication the Crisis, written by W.E.B. Du Bois and Martha Gruening. When African Americans were hired to replace whites, hysteria took hold and a white mob attacked the black section of East St. Louis, leaving 6,000 blacks homeless and perhaps 200 dead. Mangled bodies were found floating in the Mississippi River. Josephine Baker, the St. Louis-born entertainer who decided she could not live in this country, said at the time: ‘The very idea of America makes me shake and tremble and gives me nightmares.’

The killing of workers by police and militia is given little notice in our history books. I thought I knew about many of these events, but I keep learning about more, such as the Bay View Massacre in Milwaukee, which took place May 5, 1886 (the day after the Haymarket bombing in Chicago). On that day, striking steelworkers marched toward a mill in Milwaukee and were intercepted by a squad of militia who fired point-blank into the strikers, killing seven.

In 1897, there was a coal strike in Pennsylvania. Immigrant Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, and Germans were brought in to break the strike. The strikebreakers themselves soon organized and went on strike. Marching toward the Lattimer mine, they refused to disperse. The sheriff and his deputies opened fire and killed 19 people, most of them shot in the back.

In 1919, a mob attack in Elaine, Arkansas, left perhaps 100 or more African Americans dead. In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, planes dropped nitroglycerin on a 35-block black business district, destroying hundreds of businesses, more than a thousand homes, 20 churches, a hospital, libraries, and schools. The number of black people killed was estimated by some in the hundreds, by others in the thousands, with bodies put into mass graves, stuffed into mine shafts, or thrown into the river.

Better known, but still absent from mainstream history books, is the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Two companies of National Guardsmen, their pay underwritten by the Rockefeller interests that owned the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, launched a military attack on the miners’ tent colony, where 1,000 men, women, and children lived. The Guardsmen poured machine-gun fire into the tents, then burned them. Eleven children and two women died.

One of the many strikes of the Depression years was against Republic Steel in Chicago in 1937. Police fired into a picket line, killing 10 in what came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre.

Even less likely to enter the history books are the atrocities the United States commits overseas. High school and college texts usually deal at length with the three-month Spanish-American War, portraying the United States as liberating Cuba from Spain and admiring Theodore Roosevelt’s exploits with the ‘Rough Riders.’ They rarely pay attention to the eight-year war to conquer the Philippines, a bloody affair that in many ways resembled the war in Vietnam. The United States killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the war, but U.S. casualties were under 5,000. In 1906, an American military detachment attacked a village of Filipino Muslims (‘Moros’) on one of the southern islands, killing 600 men, women, and children. This was the Moro Massacre, which drew an angry response from Mark Twain and other Americans.

In his capacity as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, Twain wrote:

We have pacified thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors, furnished heartbreak by exile to dozens of disagreeable patriots, and subjugated the remaining ten million by Benevolent Assimilation.

Those of us who were of age during the Vietnam War remember the My Lai Massacre of 1968, in which a company of American soldiers fired into groups of unarmed villagers, killing perhaps 500 people, many of them women and children. When I spoke recently to a group of a hundred high school honors students in history and asked who knew about the My Lai Massacre, no one raised a hand.

My Lai was not a unique event. A U.S. Army colonel charged with covering up the My Lai incident told reporters: ‘Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace.’

And if the word massacre means indiscriminate mass slaughter of innocent people, is it not reasonable to call the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki massacres, as well as the firebombing of Tokyo and the destruction of Dresden and other German cities?

In Ignazio Silone’s novel Fontamara, about peasants living under Italian fascism, an underground resistance movement produces leaflets in order to disseminate information that had been suppressed and then simply to ask: ‘Che fare?’-‘What shall we do?’ (‘They have killed Berardo Viola. What shall we do? They have taken away our water. What shall we do? They violate our women in the name of the law. What shall we do?’)

When our government, our media, and our institutions of higher learning select certain events for remembering and ignore others, we have the responsibility to supply the missing information. Just telling untold truths has a powerful effect, for people with ordinary common sense may then begin asking themselves and others: What shall we do?

Howard Zinn is a historian and activist, best known for his 1980 book A People’s History of the United States; Excerpted from A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, published in 2006 by City Lights, independent booksellers and publishers of cutting-edge fiction, poetry, memoirs, translations, and books on vital social and political issues;

Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader‘s September / October package on history:

  • History Lessons
    What we’re taught and what’s ignored
    by Keith Goetzman
  • Forgetting Hitler
    A growing number of young German Muslims lash out against Holocaust studies
    by Stacy Perman, from Guilt & Pleasure
  • In the Trenches
    A powerful war poem teaches history–and humility
    by Patrick Hicks, from Florida Review
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.